The Walking School Bus at Twajiji Primary School in the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement

When Community Development Isn’t Communicated

Even the most successful nonprofits and NGOs struggle with communication. From knowing how to present the benefits of a project, to maintaining channels in a technology-poor environment, information transfer is a continuous challenge.

Take a look at these five communication pitfalls common to community development projects, and see how The Walking School Bus implements solutions that maintain open, efficient, and positive interactions!

1. Failure to communicate the details

The long hours required to carry out a successful implementation can distance organizations from the simple details of their project, such as how innovations actually function, or how local people can derive the most benefit. Stepping back and thinking about how resources appear to first-time users is key in making sure benefits aren’t obscured by a confusing user experience or complex protocols.

Failing to communicate how a project really works can have the unfortunate result of decreasing trust within communities. When recipients of a Hunger Safety Net cash transfer program were not adequately supported during the registration process, mistakes during registration occurred. This resulted in delays in payment, which engendered mistrust of the program within the community, and caused tension between recipients and administrators.

TWSB Solution: Extensive conversations with our potential partner communities happen prior to any implementation. These create a clear and positive platform for introductions, but are also intended to help us understand the unique issues of the community. Hearing directly from community members before planning or implementation stages gives insight into how previously used TWSB interventions might be adjusted on a detailed level to meet the needs of the community.

Even when reaching out during initial phases, however, clarity over the details can be hugely beneficial. As a practice, TWSB and partner communities draft, agree and sign a joined Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). This establishes clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities, which is valuable in keeping everybody on the same page.

2. Communication breakdown

Before working out what information needs to be communicated, organizations may need to ensure adequate channels exist in the first place. The World Health Organization’s six-point communications strategy highlights how the transfer of information between nonprofits and communities should be actionable, credible, relevant, timely, understandable — and perhaps most importantly — accessible.

Part of meeting these criteria includes finding out what mix of channels helps to empower audiences. The best way to contact individuals is likely to differ between home and intervention locations, meaning that regional and country offices may be best placed to advise on how to communicate. Local authorities often have their own set of channels and superior (and sometimes counterintuitive) knowledge of how channels most-effectively operate.

Even when organizations are informed on communication needs and issues, technology gaps can make it difficult to find workable solutions. Whether it’s a lack of network infrastructure or difficulties in accessing hardware, the fastest and most efficient ways to communicate are sometimes simply not viable.

TWSB Solution: Our local offices in Uganda and India create bespoke workflows with each partner community. These take into account the state of available infrastructure and make the most of it, which can be a challenge. TWSB works in many rural communities, far from the grid, posing difficulties for connecting people, but also providing the opportunity to implement innovative and sustainable solutions. By increasing the reach and access to mobile data in India and Uganda, we can help our partners stay as up to date as possible.

3. Transition and training

Handover or transition periods can result in a conflicting mix of emotions. On one hand, there are celebrations at the success of a project, while on the other, a level of anxiety over whether sufficient infrastructure and training are in place. Good communication in these scenarios is imperative in retaining project integrity, especially in areas vulnerable to corruption.

Beyond a handover, organizations face the task of keeping up to date with project status and progress. Many NGO’s report difficulties in maintaining lines of communication in the long term, which can restrict the ability to support local staff.

The success of a Gender Violence Hotline implemented by Mercy Corps was affected when, after handing over management to the Gender Directorate of the County Government, the charity discovered the hotline was out of order for long periods. A lack of efficient communication meant Mercy Corps was only able to respond when a subsequent research project uncovered local dissatisfaction.

TWSB Solution: We spend between 3–6 months undertaking training with community teachers and school administrators. This helps to ensure that, once full implementation occurs, teachers are already comfortable using their digital resources, and are able to apply it within their specific classroom contexts. An extensive training period also gives community partners enough time to become familiar with names and roles, making them more able and more likely to reach out when assistance is needed.

4. Failure to reach public platforms and potential funders

Beyond the challenge of successful communication between nonprofits and local communities, organizations should also consider how to communicate with the public at large. A 2014 study of nonprofit media communications suggested that today’s media landscape is more competitive than ever, making it difficult for even the more well-known nonprofits to reach the public.

Hand in hand with knowing how to get the important details of an organization out there, is the ability to work effectively with potential funders. No matter the scale of an organization, extensive support is often required to develop proposals that can speak to the benefits of community development projects, without overly-complicating communications.

TWSB Solution: Successful communication with the public and donors requires continuous engagement and attention to detail. While the process can be a struggle for all NGOs, we’re proud of our innovative approach to ensuring funding is as little of a roadblock as possible, for all of our projects. Take a look at our article on how we achieve funding for our projects, to find out more about our funding strategy.

5. Failure to listen

The flip side of good communication is making time to listen. Understanding the true nature of a community issue is a prerequisite for ensuring a smooth and genuinely effective implementation. Uncovering pertinent details further down the line can lead to delays and potential costly alterations.

Often, the best community development begins from a basis of supporting genuine local-specific needs and preexisting efforts, rather than working from a non-specific community model. As Cormac Russell, Managing Director of Nurture Development writes, “instead of working out a model of what we need to deliver to add value, those of us at institutions should let go of our agendas for a while and start a conversation about what we need to discover.”

Thinking about the possible communication challenges facing nonprofits helps to highlight where organizations should be focusing their attention, and where they might miss opportunities to avoid greater challenges further down line. Although many of these issues can be significant, all of these challenges can also be solved through careful planning, accurate allocation of time and resources, and by acknowledging the need to constantly look for ways to maintain clear channels of communication through a project’s lifetime.

TWSB Solution: Close community partnerships are built by individuals who value communication and are committed to a process of open iteration based on community struggles. At TWSB, we ensure we’re able to listen by working with an awesome team of individuals who are able to spark insightful conversation at all levels. We’re also constantly open to new voices, so if you have something to add, why not join the conversation?

Education means a brighter future.